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3 Nov 2009 : Column 120

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I have found the Tory Front Bench, as indeed all Members of this House, very diligent in their responsibilities in questioning what is happening in the Ministry of Defence.

Electoral Commission: Weekend Polling


3.01 pm

Asked By Lord Tyler

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government have already conducted a full public consultation on the merits of moving election day to the weekend and whether it could be expected to support greater participation. The Government's response to the consultation will be published shortly in the context of the Government's wider thinking on promoting engagement in the electoral process. However, the responses reveal that there is a wide range of views on whether weekend voting would have a positive impact on turnout.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am truly grateful to the Minister, unusually, for that reply. Will he confirm that it is the Government's overall intention to seek ways to increase participation in elections, particularly in parliamentary elections, because that is so crucial to the future of our democracy? Will he therefore take this opportunity to say in straight terms that the proposals of officials in the Ministry of Justice to the Treasury that there should be restrictions on the number of hours for polling and a marked reduction in the number of polling stations, particularly in rural areas, are dead and buried? Will he also confirm that Mr Straw said that these proposals were completely unknown to Ministers? In those circumstances, can he explain what would have happened if they had gone to the Treasury without being leaked? Would the Treasury then have sought to implement them without reference to Ministers?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Justice Secretary made absolutely clear on Friday, the document referred to by the Times newspaper was a working paper produced by officials collating ideas for further consideration. It does not represent agreed government policy. Had Ministers seen the proposals, officials would have been informed that many of them were simply unacceptable. They will not be developed any further.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, are there not reasons profounder than the possible inconvenience of voting on a Thursday why turnout at elections has declined? Does my noble friend think that they may include public revulsion at adversarial politics and

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negative campaigning, disillusion with a consumer model of politics, routine trivialisation and disparagement of politics by the media and loss of respect for politicians?

Lord Bach: My Lords, there clearly are a large number of reasons why in recent decades the number of people voting at general elections has on the whole gone down. However, I should point out that the 2005 turnout was higher than the 2001 turnout. I am sure that my noble friend has stated some of the reasons why that has happened and it is right that we, particularly in this House, should defend politics. There is no doubt that politics and politicians get a very raw deal at present from what passes to be the media in this country.

Lord Henley: My Lords, following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said about people being alienated from the electoral process, does the Minister accept that his Government's policies are wrong, particularly on matters such as immigration-even the Home Secretary has admitted that-and have been wrong over the past few years, which has led to support for fringe parties such as the BNP and, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said, to a large number of people being alienated from the voting process?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I do not agree at all with what the noble Lord suggests. The fact is that all political parties from time to time face the onslaught of the media, including individual and party politicians. That is a danger which we all face in a democracy such as ours. For the noble Lord to categorise one aspect of policy as if that somehow led to one result does not give enough seriousness to the issue we face.

Lord Maxton: My Lords, given that we live in an electronic age in which most of us use computers on a regular basis, does my noble friend agree that it is time we introduced electronic voting in this country to ensure that the maximum number of people can vote from a maximum number of places? Does that not mean, to ensure security, that we must eventually introduce compulsory ID cards?

Lord Bach: My Lords, on the first part of my noble friend's question, which is very much relevant to the Question I was originally asked, e-voting, as he knows, has been trialled in statutory elections in the UK and it certainly remains one of many possibilities for further consideration as a voting method. But the introduction of voting by internet would require careful consideration. We would have to be sure that the necessary technological and legislative provisions were in place to maintain confidence in the electoral process. Of course, that would require primary legislation, too; and I have to tell him that it would not be right to bring forward changes of such substance to the parliamentary election rules this close to a general election. Indeed, if we did, we would be criticised for it.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords-

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords-

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): My Lords, I am sorry, but it is the Liberal Party's turn, although I am sure we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, when the Government respond to the consultation on voting will they indicate whether they have taken into account the fact that France, Germany, Spain, Italy and a majority of countries in the European Union hold their voting in general elections at weekends? What impact might that have on voting turnout?

Lord Bach: I am sure that we will take account of what happens in other countries. The Electoral Commission survey led to this Question. It made an interesting finding, but it is perhaps worth noting that the answers to the survey, particularly when responding to a prompt from an interviewer, as was the case here-I remind the House that the commission asked non-voters if the opportunity to vote at the weekend would have made them more or less likely to vote-are not always a good indicator of voter behaviour, perhaps in part because people still feel some social obligation to vote.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, given that the Electoral Commission now costs more than £100 million over the course of a Parliament- £25 million a year-which is more than all the political parties will spend altogether on all the elections conducted during the course of a Parliament, including a general election, does the Minister not think that this body has too much time and money on its hands?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I do not. The noble Lord will remember, from legislation that this House helped to pass a few months ago, that we have reformed the Electoral Commission so that it can do its job even better than it does at the moment.

Baroness Prosser: My Lords-

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords-

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords-

Baroness Prosser: My Lords, I am seldom lobbied on any matter to do with the business of the House, mostly because my friends and family recognise that I have very little influence over the business of the House. However, I am lobbied constantly on the disruption to the lives of working parents when schools are closed on Thursdays for elections. Does the Minister agree, now that more mothers are participating in paid employment, that it is important to recognise this when responding to the consultation exercise that has taken place?

Lord Bach: My Lords, certainly it is an important consideration. There is another consideration on the other side-there always is-which is that people do not always like to have their weekends disrupted.

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Lord Greaves: My Lords, is it not the case that when people are sufficiently enthused and motivated by political parties and candidates, and by the democratic political system, they will go out and vote; and that until such time as they are, no matter what tinkering the Government want to do with the mechanics of voting, people have a perfect right to stay at home and say, "We are having nothing to do with any of you"?

Lord Bach: My Lords, in strict legal terms, of course they have a perfect right to stay at home. Whether they have the right in other ways, I am not as convinced as the noble Lord. Many people gave a lot of time and blood to make sure that those over the age of 21-except of course those in this House-had the right to vote. That is something that should be taken extremely seriously. Enthusiasm about politics and politicians is very important, and politicians have a role to play in that. However, if I may go back to an earlier theme, so too do the media.

Arrangement of Business


3.12 pm

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, with the leave of the House, my noble friend Lord Mandelson will now make a Statement on higher education. My noble friend Lord Myners will repeat the Statement on banking reform immediately after the Statement on higher education.

Higher Education


3.12 pm

The First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council (Lord Mandelson): With your Lordships' permission, I should like to make a Statement about Higher Ambitions-The future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy that we are publishing today and placing in the House Libraries.

The past 10 years have been a decade of outstanding achievement for higher education in this country. Talented people and enterprising institutions, backed by public investment and reform, have delivered the twin objectives of widening access and creating excellence.

When the Government reformed university fees, we were told that students, and especially poorer students, would be put off from applying. The opposite has occurred. A record number of students now attend university, and the gap between socio-economic groups has narrowed, not widened. For the first time, a million people will start their studies this year. The quality of student academic achievement is high. Drop-out rates have fallen by a fifth and the number of Firsts has doubled. This demonstrates that wider opportunity is not the enemy of excellence, as opponents of change have alleged.

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We have a disproportionate share of the world's leading research universities. With just 1 per cent of the world's population, we achieve 12 per cent of the world's scientific citations. Institutions across the sector have contributed to the success-the newer universities alongside the older ones.

Public funding for both research and teaching has increased by more than 50 per cent in real terms since 1997. Universities have developed new sources of income, and tuition fees are bringing in £1.3 billion a year to boost the quality of a student's education. We should thank universities, their teaching staff, administrators and students for this outstanding record of very real achievements.

The strategy that we are publishing today aims to set a course for an equally successful decade ahead. But new times and new conditions require some fresh policy choices and judgments. The coming decade will see public expenditure inevitably more constrained. Attracting the best students and researchers will become more competitive. Above all, it will be a decade when our top priority is to restore economic growth, and our universities need to make an even stronger contribution to this goal. Able people and bright ideas are the foundation stones of a thriving knowledge economy. Producing both are what good universities are all about. So in the next 10 years we will want more, not fewer, people in higher education and more, not less, quality research.

Our first objective, therefore, is that all who have the ability to benefit can access higher education. There should be no artificial caps on talent. Our goal remains for at least 50 per cent of 18 to 30 year-olds to enter university. We have made great progress in the number of people beginning a three-year degree at 18 or 19 years. But the challenge for the next decade is to offer a wider range of study opportunities-part-time, work-based, foundation degrees and studying whilst at home-to a greater range of people. So we will encourage the expansion of routes from apprenticeships and vocational qualifications to higher education, and offer more higher education in further education colleges.

Inadequate information, advice and guidance at school still bar too many young people from fulfilling their potential. We will work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to rectify this. To meet the social mobility goals in Alan Milburn's report, all young people must be encouraged to strive for challenging goals by teachers with ambitious expectations for them.

Universities should also do more to reach out to all young people with a high potential. I want to be clear that this Government will not dictate universities' admissions procedures, nor undermine excellence. All students must continue to enter higher education on merit. But I believe merit means taking account of academic attainment, aptitude and potential. Many universities are already developing their use of contextual data, and we hope that all universities will consider incorporating contextual data into their admissions processes better to assess the aptitude and potential of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I am also asking Sir Martin Harris, who heads the Office for Fair Access, to consult vice-chancellors on improving access to the most selective universities, and he will report back in the spring.

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The Government's second objective is for universities to make a bigger contribution to economic recovery and future growth. Knowledge generation and stewardship in all subjects have public value and are important in their own right. They are vital, in particular, to creating wealth through the commercial application of knowledge and preparing our people for employment. We have therefore decided to give greater priority than now to programmes that meet the need for high-level skills, especially in key areas such as science, technology, engineering and maths. A new contestable fund will provide universities with the incentive to fulfil this priority. Areas where the supply of graduates is not meeting demand for key skills will be identified. We will seek to rebalance this by asking HEFCE to prioritise courses which match these skills needs.

We will look to business to be more active partners with our universities. Employers should fully engage in the funding and design of university programmes, the sponsorship of students and offering work placements. We believe this is possible without compromising universities' autonomy and educational mission.

Our third objective is to strengthen the research capacity of our universities and its commercialisation. The investment of the past decade has greatly strengthened the public science base. We will continue to protect its excellence. This will require a greater concentration of world-class research, especially in the high-cost scientific disciplines. Research excellence is, of course, spread across a wide number of institutions and subjects. The challenge now is to develop new models of collaboration between universities and research institutions, so that the best researchers, wherever they are located, co-operate rather than compete for available funds.

The Government's fourth objective is to promote quality teaching. The quality of education provided by our universities is generally good but needs to be higher. I welcome the action that universities are taking to raise standards in teaching and to strengthen the external examiner system. Students deserve nothing less. They will rightly expect to be better informed about how they will be taught and their career prospects. We want the Quality Assurance Agency to provide more and clearer information to students about standards in our universities. Students' expectations and actual experience should be central to the quality assurance process.

Our fifth objective is to strengthen the role of universities in their communities and regions and in the wider world. Universities provide employment, enhance cultural life and offer many amenities to their surrounding communities. They shape and communicate our shared values, including tolerance, freedom of expression and civic engagement. We will support universities in safeguarding these values. We will ask universities to continue developing their role in local economic development with the regional development agencies and with business. The Government will also do more to champion the international standing of our universities as world leaders in the growing market for higher education across borders and continents, including by e-learning.

In the decade ahead, we will expect more from our universities than ever before. They will need to use their resources more effectively, reach out to a wider

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range of potential students and devise new income sources, while maintaining excellence. As we look to our universities to do more, we will also need to look afresh at securing the funding that excellence requires and how all who benefit from higher education-taxpayers, students, and the private sector-should contribute. It was agreed in 2004 that the new fees structure in England should be reviewed at this stage and the Government will make an announcement about this shortly. But I should stress that we will seek a properly and fairly balanced approach, without placing an unreasonable or counter-productive burden on any single source of funding.

At the heart of the framework published today is a strong and creative vision of higher education: about strong, autonomous institutions with diverse missions and a common commitment to excellence; about a shared framework for extending opportunity to all who can benefit; and about our universities as a cornerstone of our country's cultural and social vitality and our future economic prosperity. I commend this Statement to the House.

3.23 pm

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I thank the First Secretary of State for the Statement and for his courtesy in showing it to me beforehand. Like him, I pay tribute to the great strengths of our higher education sector and to the talented people who work in it. This strategy document has been a long time coming. When, in his first week in office, the Prime Minister established the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, many people might have expected a clear statement of the Government's approach to higher education. Unfortunately, before that happened, the department was shut down. We were then led to understand that a strategy paper would, none the less, appear in late summer or early autumn. There were even leaks about the possibility of no-fee degrees for those living at home, which I did not hear the noble Lord mention today. Then, after a speedy U-turn, we were told that the document would appear in mid-October. But even if it is third time lucky, we still welcome the main themes.

It is right to focus on the quality of the student experience. My honourable friend David Willetts has raised this issue repeatedly in recent months, so it would be churlish of me not to welcome the Government's perhaps somewhat belated commitment to this issue. Students are borrowing much more than they used to in order to attend university, and the sum of money that each university receives per student has increased markedly. Universities have strived to reflect this in the education they offer, but the national student survey shows no clear trend in student satisfaction.

Irrespective of the future level of tuition fees, we need a new focus on the quality of the education on offer as well as the consequences in terms of salary and life chances of studying different courses at different institutions. That was the conclusion of the Government's own student juries and it explains why my party's work on the problems of social mobility has produced, among other things, the concept of a new, independent, all-age careers service and a proposal for a new social mobility website.

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